“More to say, have you” on the Old Republic beta, Toriah? Why yes, Yoda, I do. Quite a bit, actually.
Map features and UI
One of the things I missed from playing Diablo II was having a map overlay on my screen. Thanks to WoW, I’ve gotten into the rather OCD habit of hitting M every two minutes or so. In TOR, not only do you get an interactive map with different markers for important things (e.g. quest objectives) plus a built-in coordinate system, it also becomes transparent if you start moving, giving you a map overlay so you know exactly where you’re going in the world. When you stop moving again, the sidebars for the map UI come back and your map returns to its original opacity. Also, the galaxy map on your eventual ship will tell you the level requirements for each planet (e.g. most starting planets are lvl 1-10). When I found out about this, I was so gleefully happy that it might as well have been gamer Christmas right then and there.
The downside to the map is that the terrain isn’t exactly all that clear. Some solid lines mean it’s a road while other obstacles and impassable terrain aren’t picked out by discernible means. I was also unable to zoom in and out of world/region modes. Once I got to the whole planet map, I couldn’t go back to my regional map. While it’s likely human error on my part, there was nothing I could find that would explain how to do so. Clicking did no good, nor did scrolling.
The player UI feels more open, probably because I don’t have multiple meters cluttering the screen. Buffs and debuffs show up by your portrait at the bottom, which is lumped in with your main hotbar. Current target is shown opposite of your portrait, along with its buffs/debuffs. Your main hotbar itself can be expanded to include more buttons *and* your companion’s additional abilities. You can click and drag your chat box to wherever you want it to go. What I couldn’t figure out was separating out my chat channels: my party chat was cluttered with general chat and the usual loot rolls. Whether that’s intentional or a bug, I couldn’t tell you. There’s an easy button to find out who’s on the planet and in your region at top left. At top center is a utility bar for character sheet, mission log, flashpoints, and all sorts of usual system things. It’s small and out of the way but chock full of information if you ever want it.
This is also where you’ll find information on a certain instance’s “owner.” When you zone into a place with those screens at the doorway, you’ll see information on the story’s “owner.” In other words, you know whose save you’re playing on.
Graphics, animation, voice acting, and combat
Graphically, the game is beautiful. I was especially struck by the liveliness of the eyes. There is an incredible depth and life to the NPCs’ eyes. Honestly, it felt like I was talking to the digital representation of a live person, rather than, well, a bunch of pixels.
That being said, during conversation cutscenes, Bioware has kept to its stock of usual animations with a few new ones thrown in. At first, it seemed fluid and almost organic; after a while, however, when you see some of the same animations happening over and over again, you’re reminded that you’re interacting with a computer program. What you do see is appropriate gestures and body language for what’s being said during conversations, and that’s a major improvement from earlier games.
Speaking of conversations and cutscenes, everything is voiced over and voiced over well. The NPCs have their lines and so do PCs. This is a major plus in the immersion department for me, since I often get attached and become one with my characters; it’s like watching myself on the screen. To others who are more separate from their characters, it might be disruptive like you’ve become the director of a Star Wars movie instead of playing a crucial role in the universe.
Bioware gets major props for combat animations. My dual-blaster-toting gunslinger was rolling into cover and firing laser into enemies fluidly, effortlessly. There’s almost a realistic way in which she held the blaster pistols by her tucked-in head while crouching in cover. And if someone got too close, she had an ability called “Dirty Kick,” where she quite literally plants her boot in the enemy’s crotch, leaving him to writhe in pain on the floor for a few seconds. If she falls too long of a distance to garner damage, she’ll roll out of it, too, before jumping back to her feet.
The downside is that I’ve become too accustomed to enemy healthbars popping up once I get into a certain proximity of them. I’ve lost all concept of aggro radii. There’s no way, as far as I can tell, to make healthbars show without clicking on the target.
Looting is also made much easier. Bodies that have loot will emit a beam of light from the corpse. The beam of light comes in different colors: blue/white means vendor trash; green means uncommon items and/or commendations; yellow/gold means quest item. This was another tiny detail that made me quite happy. Somewhere in the preferences, you can tell the game to auto-loot all nearby corpses, too.
Music and ambiance
The Star Wars franchise is lucky to have the likes of John Williams composing theatrical scores for them. This game is lucky to have such a foundation to draw from. Some of the music is familiar, taken from earlier games and sometimes even the movies, where it’s appropriate, tugging on the nostalgia strings once again. And some of the music is completely brand new. Regardless of which camp it hails from, it really sets the mood just right. Sometimes, there’s no music at all– just you and the environment.
The best thing about the music is that it’s reactive. When you get into combat, the music will change, further adding to that epic, cinematic feeling from the game. And the music will be similarly suited for the combat. If it’s an everyday sort of trash fight, you won’t be hearing pounding drums and strident violin pieces. But fights with elites and the sort will.
When I heard there would be space combat in TOR, I leaped for joy. My very first game was Privateer from the Wing Commander universe, and it’s been a long time since a good space sim was around. But this is not a space sim. Far from it.
Your ship flies on a predetermined track and will follow your mouse cursor or the usual ASDW keys. You fire by left-clicking and laser fire goes wherever your cursor is; right-clicking uses your missiles. And… that’s it. For escort missions, it’s not that bad, since you can focus on protecting your charge and shoot down bad guys, rather than trying to do all of that plus making sure you don’t lose your escortee. On missions where you have to kill certain things, however, it’s a total pain. If you miss your opportunity, you have to sit there and wait while praying you don’t get blown out of the sky in the meantime.
On the bright side, when you finish your first space combat mission, you get the title of “Flyboy” or “Flygirl,” which kind of made up for the headache, but only a little.
Modifying armor and weapons
Somehow, Bioware went backwards in their armor and weapon modification UI. In the original KotOR, you brought up a whole screen with your weapon/armor of choice and the available upgrades in your inventory. TOR, however, gives you a window akin to the socketing UI in WoW. And you can do all of the modifying without a worktable… Even though there are worktables in major hubs. So, the plus side is being able to mod your gear without going back to a major town/city. I just hope you like having to open and close windows over and over again and clicking and dragging.
World environment and travel
To be honest, it’s an entire galaxy environment. Each planet has its own feel and personality; each subzone on the planet also has its own identity. For something that feels incredibly vast, travel isn’t all that much of a hassle. Somehow, the developers were able to balance being in the world while not making questing feel like it was taking a million years while running from Point A to Point B.
Part of it is attributed to your companions selling off grays for you: you don’t have to be near a town with vendors all the time. Another thing is this handy thing called Quick Travel that has a 30min cooldown. At most questing hubs and cities/towns, there’s a little kiosk you can use and it will add that location to your Quick Travel device. The device allows you to get “picked up” by a shuttle and transported to your location of choice. Let’s say you’re mired in the depths of a mini-instance: Quick Travel can get you back out in a jiffy. But you have to either taxi or run back to where you need to go afterwards, throwing you back into the world.
When traveling from planet to planet, you will often use your own ship, which has all sorts of neat toys in it, too, being your personal base of operations. Your ship will also be one of the places your companion(s) will choose to talk to you, making travel less dull. One complaint I had about the ship was that you were never ever able to just board your ship. Once you told the game you wanted to get on your ship, that meant you were lifting off and leaving the atmosphere for high orbit, too.
The social meter
After three days of the beta, I’m still not sure what it’s for. When you’re in a group doing group quests, which will often have group quest conversations, you will get social points for participating. Really, I think it’s a gauge to see how much grouping a certain character has done. The more you successfully group with people and get through group quests/conversations, the more social points you gain. At least, that’s how I think it works.
It’s got the potential to be very handy, if it works that way. Someone can tell if an individual works well with others or not, potentially staving off drama llamas.
Mission log and codex/bestiary
One periphery thing I learned to love is the codex. It’s like the developer’s way of saying, “Hey, we want you to know about this world you’re playing in!” in gigantic neon letters. Every time you discover an important region, kill something for the first time, or meet an important NPC, an entry is added to your codex. Want to know more about the planet you’re on? Stumbled upon some old ship ruins? Can’t remember why you’re doing something for this NPC? Curious about the multi-eyed, scythe-teethed creature that just attacked you?
It’s all in the codex. The codex is a part of the mission log in a separate tab, which has its own tabs for anything from characters of note to location lore. There are even references for game rules and the sort. All of it makes for great reading and is just another way a vast universe is able to become personal.
This is going to be a great game. Even with the graphical glitches (like the ship not showing up in a cutscene), the beta was well put-together. Will I be getting it at launch? Most likely not. Don’t get me wrong: I’m excited as hell about this game and, if I had limitless money and time to invest in another subscription-run MMO, my answer would change to “Probably.”
There’s also the fact that the things I’m most excited about in this game are largely single-player oriented and fueled by nostalgia. When I think about it, I want to find out all of the storylines and see how they all play out in all of their different ways. A multiplayer KotOR sounds like a lot of fun but not something I’m keen on paying $60+sub to play, especially if I’m mainly doggedly chasing down plot: a single-player goal. I actually like the “MM” aspect of MMO… Until I find out more about instancing (flashpoints) and endgame content, which will encourage me to build community and enjoy the “MM” of MMO, I’m going to have to sit and watch for a while.
Like one person on the beta said: “I’m willing to wait a year and see how the game develops after launch.” It was an incredibly sage perspective that I’d never thought of, and one I’m willing to adopt for my own. My hunky smuggler companion will still be there when I eventually get the game and roll my cyborg smuggler again… Hopefully.
Thanks for sticking with these huge blocks of text for the past two weeks! Next week, I promise a return to Warcraft– and parenting-related topics: Patch 4.3’s transmogrification and baby clothes. I swear there’s an actual correlation. Trust me.